JAN: I met Ellen Byerrum at the wonderful Festival of Mystery (MysteryLovers Bookshop) in Oakmont, PA, where I think the seating was alphabetical. On another "road trip" we had dinner in the LAX airport. (at least I think that was the airport.) She is as a former Washington, D.C., news reporter, and a playwright, and she also holds a Virginia private investigator's registration. Her Crime of Fashion mysteries star Lacey Smithsonian, is a reluctant fashion reporter in Washington D.C., "The City Fashion Forgot." The latest in the series, Shot Through Velvet, won a starred review by Publisher's Weekly.
Today, Ellen has agreed to talk a little about road trips -- and the one that brought her inspiration in her new book.
The Late Great American Road Trip
by Ellen Byerrum
With the price of gasoline soaring out of sight, I fear that the Great American Road Trip may be endangered. It makes me nostalgic, even as I hit the highway to Pittsburgh for a mystery gig. I have no guilt, but I wonder how many more road trips lie ahead, or are even possible in the future. But the summer is close at hand and the road calls to me.
The road trip has long been celebrated by writers. Walt Whitman was one of the earliest Americans to wax glowingly of the open road. Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer took their version of a road trip—on a raft. Jack Kerouac kept journals from his road trips which were compressed into On the Road, that valentine to the Beat Generation and the open highway. Simon and Garfunkel sang about hitting the road by bus in “America.”
Now, a road trip is not the hateful daily commute on streets designed by a committee of deranged monkeys. A road trip must be taken beyond the Beltway, out of the city, far from the overwhelming traffic. And I-95, the Devil’s Highway, doesn’t even count in this equation.
On one road trip I discovered a town I’ll call “Black Martin,” where I toured the last velvet factory in Virginia during its last week in operation. Black Martin, Virginia, was the kind of small town, far off the main drag, that you might never notice. The town had an air of past glory that mirrored the past-its-prime factory where a hundred workers had just lost their jobs. It was there that I learned how velvet was woven and cut and dyed. No other fabric is so luxurious, or compels you to touch it and sink your fingers into its deep soft nap the way velvet does. Velvet is the fabric of royalty, of wealth, of Christmas dresses, of evening gowns, of tufted sofas, and even of theater curtains. Velvet lines jewelry boxes, earring cards, and also—coffins. The dying factory and the town inspired me to write my most recent Crime of Fashion mystery, Shot Through Velvet, in which my reporter heroine Lacey Smithsonian witnesses the demise of a velvet factory and the discovery of a dead body in a dye vat. All she wanted was an interview and a road trip. She got much more. But road trips are like that. They bring you surprises that often linger long after you’ve parked the car back in your own driveway,
The desire for a road trip can strike at any time, most often when you’re working. On deadline. You just want to jump out of your office and into a car and drive. I remember clearly that itchy feeling grabbing me one day when I was working as a reporter, covering hearings in Washington, D.C., at the Labor Department on an OSHA ergonomics regulation. I was risking a hind-end sprain from sitting on their non-ergonomic chairs and a mind sprain from listening to business attorneys who were turning intellectual cartwheels trying to prove there were no such things as work-related musculoskeletal disorders. At lunchtime, I escaped a few blocks away to the National Building Museum, where there was a mesmerizing exhibit on the American Road Trip.
The exhibit began with an old commercial (from the era when Dinah Shore roamed the earth) exhorting you to “see the USA in a Chevrolet.” There were maps and photos and the full-size interior of a funky old motel room. My mind was pumping the words, Road Trip, Road Trip, Road Trip. Needless to say, I was fantasizing about hotwiring the nearest car and hitting the highway, getting as far away as I could get from the OSHA hearings. Sadly, my skill set does not extend to hotwiring cars. I returned to the hearing with only one thing on my mind, and it wasn’t ergonomics. I dreamed of escape! In a car! The open road, my foot on the accelerator, my troubles squashed flat beneath the wheels, and the wind in my hair. When the opportunity for travel comes, I don’t take it for granted. I seize the moment, and the wheel.
The miles go by with the radio on. I sing along to the music; my husband doesn’t mind.
The miles go by, and my thoughts are quiet, story ideas rumbling around in the back of my mind, complete with plots, characters, action and new settings, perhaps near the hot springs I just passed.
The miles go by and I wonder what people do in these small towns. Who lives in that house? What do they do out here? What about that abandoned house? Where does that side road go?
The miles go by, and with each green mile I feel a deeper satisfaction, a deeper sense of quiet, a deeper exhale.
The miles go by. If you see me on the road, be sure to wave.
To learn more about Ellen or check out her books, go to her Website at http://www.ellenbyerrum.com.